Happy National TV Dinner Day! September 10th holds a special spot on the calendar for the iconic, slightly controversial, and constantly changing American meal of convenience.
The first official “TV Dinner”-branded TV dinner was created by Omaha-based C.A. Swanson & Sons and hit the market in 1954. The meal consisted of turkey, gravy, cornbread stuffing, sweet potatoes, and buttered peas, and sold for 98 cents. The food itself was packaged in a foil-covered, segmented aluminum tray to be heated in the oven. And the cardboard box it all came in was designed to look like a television set, complete with “dials” and a “volume control knob.” Approximately 10 million of the meals were sold that first year.
In a widely cited 1999 Associated Press article, a former Swanson employee named Gerry Thomas somewhat humbly asked reporter Walter Berry not to call him “the father of the TV dinner.” “It bothers me,” Thomas said, “I really didn’t invent the dinner. I innovated the tray on how it could be served, coined the name and developed some unique packaging.”
The article then goes on to detail an amazing story that’s since been repeated countless times: In the winter of 1952, the Swansons were in a panic about what to do about 520,000 pounds of excess Thanksgiving turkeys that they were having to store on refrigerated rail cars, so they asked their employees to help them find a way to use the turkey.
On a sales trip, Thomas was meeting with a distributor at a warehouse when he glimpsed a metal tray. He learned that Pan Am was experimenting with the trays in hopes of serving warm food on long flights. “I asked if I could borrow it and stuck it in the pocket of my overcoat,” Thomas says. He then goes on to describe how he drew a sketch dividing the tray into segments, and was soon struck with the idea to capitalize on the brand-new television craze that was just beginning to take over American homes. His final spark of inspiration: “Thanksgiving” in front of the tube.
But in 2003, the Los Angeles Times conducted a lengthy investigation into the invention, and found that several of the Swanson scions, a few journalists who had written books on the subject, and some former Swanson employees contested Thomas’s claims, giving credit for the various elements of the TV Dinner Plan to other people in the company. Still, Thomas defended his story, admitting to possibly embellishing or hazily remembering minor details, but insisting that the core facts were “basically correct and accurate.” When Thomas died in 2005, most of the obituaries written about him, like this one in The Washington Post, credited him as the inventor of the TV Dinner.
The Library of Congress attributes the TV dinner to three different sources: Gerry Thomas, the Swanson Brothers, and Maxson Food Systems, Inc., which in 1945 manufactured “Strato-Plates,” or complete frozen meals that were heated for use on airplanes but never made it to the retail market.
In her 1994 Associated Press article “The Year the TV Dinner Knocked America Cold,” Kay Bartlett observes that, in 1954, television was “a new and fascinating phenomenon, particularly for children, and there were only three to four hours of new programming each day, generally in the late afternoon and evening, during the dinner hour. Families were virtually living their lives, after school and after work, around television. Preparation for mealtime was restricted.”
So, basically, gathering around the dining room table was replaced with circling around the TV.
What’s more, the “futuristic” aesthetic of the aluminum tray might have played a role in the TV dinner’s popularity. Nutritional anthropologist Deborah Duchon told the Christian Science Monitor in 2004 that “in the ‘50s, society became very futuristic. We wondered what our lives would be like in the year 2000, and were very interested in technology and machinery. People embraced TV trays and TV dinners not because the food was good – it was awful – but because it was futuristic and convenient.”
The National Women’s History Museum points out: “TV dinners did more than just feed families, their convenience and quick cook time gave women (who usually did all or most of the cooking) more time of their own to pursue jobs and other interests, while still providing a hot meal for their families. One of the first advertisements for Swanson featured a woman pulling a Swanson dinner out of her grocery bag and promising her husband, ‘I’m late—but dinner won’t be.’” (The Banquet brand used a similar marketing approach in the 1962 advertisement for their TV dinners, above.)
Still, though the TV dinner might have made a lot of women happy, some men weren’t so thrilled. In that famous 1999 AP interview, Gerry Thomas recalls receiving complaints. “I remember getting hate mail from men who wanted their wives to cook from scratch like their mothers did,” he says. “Women got used to the idea of freedom that men always had.”
In 1953, Betty Cronin, fresh out of Duchesne College, was working as a bacteriologist at Swanson when she was tasked with the development of the TV Dinner. She had mostly male underlings.
“I had medical students working under me,” Cronin told the Chicago Tribune, who dubbed her the “mother of the TV dinner” in 1989. “They just couldn’t handle it. I was looked at kind of cockeyed, like ‘Why aren’t you in Library Science?’”
She was soon promoted to director of product development, and was the person who figured out how the meat, the vegetables, and the potatoes could all be heated at once using the same cooking time. She also solved other pressing problems: “What kind of [fried chicken] breading will stay on through freezing, not be too greasy and still taste good?” Cronin recalled. “That was our biggest challenge.”
Cronin found herself taste-testing all of her experiments. There were a lot of duds, and she quickly grew tired of it so she recruited some other unfortunate souls. “I had friends I’d use as a panel, Cronin said. “I’d call and say, ‘Don’t make dinner, I’m sending something out.’ Sometimes they’d tell me, ‘Don’t bring any more of these out here unless you bring us a lot of beer, too.’”
In 1960, dessert was added, and that little compartment of cobbler that would come to scorch the roofs of countless mouths made its debut. (But then again, so did the brownie – yum!)
In 1962, Swanson executives worried that the name “TV Dinner” would discourage customers from eating the meals at various times of the day, so it disappeared from the packaging. The company introduced Swanson Breakfasts to the market in 1969.
In 1973, Swanson introduced Hungry Man meals that targeted the hungry man (or, let’s face it, hungry woman – ain’t no shame!) who wanted a second helping. Banquet rolled out its own version, the “Man Pleaser” dinner, around the same time.
The harried-housewife TV dinner ads that seemed almost like a badge of pride for women in the ’50s and ‘60s fell out of vogue in the ‘80s. In a 1982 New York Times article about ad research, Eric Pace wrote that, while crafting an ad campaign for Swanson frozen dinners, Chicago advertising agency Leo Burnett found that, though people who eat TV dinners are “harassed and hard-working,” “harassed customers did not like to be reminded of how hectic their lives were.” Perhaps that’s why the above ‘80s ad shows relaxed people, seeming to imply that there’s no noticeable difference between home cooking and Swanson’s chicken dinner.
Marketing trends for the TV dinner would continue toward a 180 degree turn from what worked in the meal’s early days. A 2011 Adweek article compares a ‘60s-era Swanson TV dinner ad, which played up “futuristic” aspects like the aluminum tray, with a modern-day Stouffer’s ad that shows the food “heaped on an earthenware plate – handily decamped from the plastic tray it came in,” and farm scenery in the background.
It’s one of the original trays designed for the first ’50s TV Dinner, and it’s part of a collection of pop-culture artifacts that includes Archie Bunker’s chair and Fonzie’s leather jacket.
“The TV dinner represented a change in the way Americans were thinking about food,” the museum’s website says.
It was the middle of the Great Recession, yet a $30 TV dinner could be had at Loews Regency Hotel in New York. “This is a city where there seems to be no end of the humble foods that can be transformed into a luxury,” Jennifer Lee observed in a New York Times blog post dedicated to the subject.
And just what did this luxury TV dinner entail? “The partitioned trays, instead of aluminum or plastic, are made of porcelain,” Lee writes. “The fried chicken is ‘free range.’ The cheese in the mac ‘n’ cheese is cheddar asiago with a Parmesan crust. And the pot roast is braised in Burgundian pinot noir.”
Last year, British chef Charlie Bigham created an even more expensive “ready meal.” Thrillist describes it as having “all the billionaire essentials: You’ve got your salmon, scallops, turbot, oysters, and lobster tails poached in Dom Perignon. You’ve got your white Alba truffles. You’ve got your Beluga caviar. And you’ve obviously got your 24-carat gold leaf crumb to garnish, because parsley is for peasants.” The whole thing cost £314, or $514.
In the past few years, several articles have been written on the impending doom the TV dinner might be facing. “Has the Frozen Dinner Become Frozen in Place?” asked Advertising Age in 2012.
“Big trouble in the frozen food aisle” declared MSN Money in 2013. “Can Frozen-Food Companies Make TV Dinners Cool Again?” worried TIME. And then just this past March in The Atlantic: “America Is Falling Out of Love With TV Dinners.”
According to the Atlantic article (and echoed in all the others), after almost 60 years of continued growth, frozen meal sales have been falling since 2008. In the TIME article, Martha C. White writes (again, echoing the other stories), “Our dining habits today are supposed to lean toward fresher, less processed food.” However, she continues, “What we’re eating might not necessarily be better for us – Panera’s Chipotle Chicken on Artisan French Bread sandwich sounds innocuous, but it’s really an 830-calorie fat-and-salt bomb. But many consumers think they’re eating healthier, and that’s what counts when we go to the grocery store, sandwich shop, or drive-through.”
Bob Goldin, executive vice president at the food-industry consulting firm Technomic, agrees. “There’s a perception among consumers that probably the quality [of frozen food] doesn’t meet the standards of fresh prepared or restaurants,” he tells TIME.
However, another series of articles, like this one in The New York Times, have emerged this past week centering around a study conducted by three sociologists at North Carolina State University, who argue that the stress that cooking places on people – particularly women – might not be worth all the effort.
According to an article in Slate titled “Let’s Stop Idealizing the Home-Cooked Family Dinner,” researchers “found that ‘time pressures, tradeoffs to save money, and the burden of pleasing others made it difficult for mothers to enact the idealized vision of home-cooked meals advocated by foodies and public health officials.’”
Responding to the same study, in her article titled “Are Family Dinners Anti-Feminist?” Ester Bloom at The Billfold suggests families “choose a variety of ingredients, frozen foods, and prepared foods, so that everyone’s expectations remain reasonable. Meals don’t have to be cooked 100 percent from scratch to be good and still cheaper/better for you than take out.”